As I discovered a few years ago and shared in the story of the amazing life of my 3rd great aunt, Mary Sawyers, in 1857 her first husband, Samuel P. Swan, was among the 436 men who died when the SS Central America went down off the coast of North Carolina.   The steamship had been struck by a ferocious hurricane off the coast of Florida and, despite valiant efforts to keep the ship afloat including non-stop hand bailing for four days and nights by the male passengers and crew, the Central America succumbed to the clutches of the mighty seas.   Before she went down, all 60 women and children, including Sam’s young wife, Mary, then 17, and their 18-month-old daughter, Elizabeth, were taken off the doomed ship and placed aboard the Brig Marine which limped into New York City a week later. 

Mary Sawyers Swan Cook (1839-1924)

Thanks again to Ancestry.com, I just learned that three years earlier, in 1854, another 3rd great uncle was tragically killed when the boiler on the steamship Secretary blew up in San Pablo Bay as she was making her way from San Francisco to Petaluma.   Thomas Porter Camron was among the 31 passengers and crew who were killed on April 15, 1854.   He was 40 years old, and his daughter Mary Emily, his sixth child, had entered this world only nine days earlier.  

Thomas was the only son, and the second eldest of the 12 children of my 3rd great-grandfather, John Miller Camron, and Mary “Polly” Orendorff.   Rev. Camron was a preacher and a California pioneer and primarily responsible for spreading the Presbyterian faith across the new state.  However, he is perhaps most well-known for co-founding the town of New Salem, Illinois with his uncle, James Rutledge.   It is there where a young Abraham Lincoln spent 6 years learning the law and cutting his first teeth as a politician.   Rev. Camron was a mentor and father figure to the President-to-be. 

Rev. John Miller Camron (1791-1878)

The massive explosion of the Secretary’s boiler reverberated throughout the entire Bay Area.    This is from the April 16 edition of the Daily Alta California newspaper.

The steamboat Secretary, Capt. K. W. Travers, running from this city to Petaluma, burst her boiler yesterday between twelve and one o’clock, killing it is supposed about thirty persons, and scalding and bruising a large number more, many of whom will probably die. The explosion took place between the islands known as the Brothers and Sisters, distant about twelve miles from the city. The Secretary left Pacific wharf about ten o’clock yesterday morning, with about 65 passengers, for Petaluma, many of whom were bound to the Russian River mines. The steamboat Nevada, Capt. J. H Cornell, left about fifteen minutes afterward for the same place and at the time of the explosion had overtaken the Secretary, and was nearly abreast of her at the time at a distance of about one hundred yards.

The explosion is described by passengers who were saved and those on the Nevada, as sudden, and very loud. The scene caused by it is indescribable. Bodies were blown into the air, heads flying in one direction and limbs and trunks in another. So great was the force of the explosion, that the boat and all her machinery was literally broken to pieces. The dead, dying and the wounded were blown into the water, and all who were able were seen clinging to the fragments of the wreck. One gentleman, Mr. Cookinghan, who escaped with a slight wound, informed us that he was blown a distance of some forty feet, and that while in the water he rescued a child from drowning and brought it safe to a piece of the wreck on which they clung till rescued. Mr. John Smith, late second officer of the Don Quixote, had his cap blown off and was himself blown into the water and assisted in saving a number of persons.

So sudden was the shock, and all were so overwhelmed by it, that the passengers who were saved are able to detail but very little of what occurred. All, however, describe the scene as horrible in the extreme. The Nevada immediately commenced picking up those who were in the water. But one dead body was recovered, that of Mrs. Cecilia Clark. The rest who were instantly killed by the explosion, sunk, and were seen no more. The Nevada remained at the scene of the explosion about an hour, gathering up the wounded, and then returned to this city, which she reached about half past three o’clock. At that time nearly all the fragments of the wreck had sunk and persons who have witnessed many previous explosions say they never saw so complete a wreck.




This is from Rev. Camron’s written history:

“In 1850 Thomas purchased land in Sonoma County, where he lived until his death.    While at Petaluma, two children were born, Oliver and Emma, by his second wife, Cynthia Hiler.   Thomas Camron was about to purchase an interest in the Steamer Secretary.  She was on a trial trip between San Francisco and Petaluma Creek, when opposite what is known as The Brothers (rocks) in San Pablo Bay, an explosion occurred. Out of fifty or sixty persons on board one-half were killed or wounded.   Thomas Camron was killed and some days later his body was found.” [The Rev. John M. Camron and Descendants 1790-1962, compiled by Alice Purvine Murphy, 1962]

This is from the 1892 book, The Bay of San Francisco-The Metropolis of the Pacific Coast and Its Suburban Cities [Lewis Publishing Company]:

Being among the first to notice the impending danger, Thomas had succeeded in inducing the women and children to take their places in the aft part of the boat; and hastening forward to labor with the captain and engineer to reduce the steam pressure, the boiler burst and he was killed, while the women and children through his forethought were all saved.   [page 221][1]

That Thomas had an interest (or was about to acquire an interest) in the Secretary would explain why he tried to help the Captain and Engineer with the malfunctioning boiler.

The disaster was widely reported in papers across the country as well as in Scotland and England.  The Daily Alta article identified the owners of the Secretary as Mssrs. Gordon & Steen and Mssrs. Gilman & Jones.   Thomas Camron was not listed as an owner.

All of the articles that appeared in the papers in the Midwest and East Coast were dated in May.  As pointed out in the Mary Sawyers story, in 1854 (and 1857) there was no telegraph or transcontinental railroad.    News from California was carried by the steamships that travelled back and forth from San Francisco to Panama and, after traversing the Isthmus by rail, onto another ship headed for New York City.   That trip normally took about two weeks. 

This was from a July 14, 1854, article that appeared in the Fremont, Ohio Weekly Journal.

Late from California, New York July 10

The steamer George Law with two weeks later news from California arrived in New York this morning.  

This was one of the snippets of news:

The grand jury in the case of the explosion of the steamer Secretary has charged the owners with gross and willful carelessness. 

The George Law steamship was named after its owner, and after he sold the ship, the name was changed to the SS Central America.  Sam and Mary Sawyers Swan together with their baby daughter were on the fateful last voyage of that steamer a little over 3 years later in September of 1857. [2]

SS Central America fkn as the SS George Law (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

Some More About Thomas Porter Camron

Thomas Porter Camron was born in Henderson County, Kentucky on February 24, 1814, and in his youth, as the only son, learned the millwright and similar trades working alongside his father.  He also assisted with the oversight of the family’s farms.  As outlined in our story Braveheart, Inbreeding and Another Family Shoulder Rub with a U.S. President, Rev. Camron could not stay in one place for too long, and was constantly uprooting his growing family and heading west:  From Kentucky to White County, Illinois, followed by several other moves within southern Illinois including New Salem, the town he co-founded with James Rutledge.   It was there, Tom got to know well the young Abraham Lincoln from 1831 to 1836.[3]

While still in Fulton County, Illinois, in 1837 Tom married Zilla Emery.  Three years later, Tom moved with his father to Iowa, first settling in Jefferson County and then on to Oskaloosa where Tom and his father were in the mercantile business.  Tom and Zilla brought 4 sons into the world in Oskaloosa:  John Henry (b 1837), David (b 1839), Alva (b 1841), and William (b 1843).

Zilla died in 1845, and the following year Tom married Cynthia Hiler.   They had two children:  Oliver Porter (b 1841) and Mary Emily, born nine days before the death of her father.

In 1849, the Camron’s pulled up stakes, formed a wagon train and headed for California.   They reached Long Bar in Yuba County.  Tom and his father spent the winter in the gold mines, while their families lived in Sacramento.   They moved to Martinez in 1850, and then Tom and his family moved across San Pablo Bay and established a farm near Petaluma in Sonoma County.  One of Tom’s sisters loved to tell this story.   

“In Martinez, Tom had a critical encounter with some robbers who stole a couple of his horses.   He started after the desperados and overtook them on the San Joaquin near Firebaugh.   The thieves, one and all, turned upon Thomas, bound him, and rode away.   One of the gang members later confessed they intended to return and kill him.   Tom was able to free himself before the gang made it back.   He headed for Stockton and learned the horses had been sold.   With the aid of the sheriff, he ultimately recovered his horses.”

Tom escaped death that time, only to meet it head on a few years later on the steamer Secretary.  


[1] Author Note:   I’m not sure of the veracity of this part of the story.   There were some women and children among the victims identified in the Daily Alta newspaper article.

[2] Author Note:  I have not yet found out what happened after the grand jury brought charges against the owners of the Secretary.

[3] Abraham Lincoln offered one of Rev. Camron’s daughters his hand in marriage but was refused because he was too poor.  Soon after that rebuff, Lincoln became engaged to Rev. Camron’s cousin, Ann Mayes Rutledge.  Tragically, Ms. Rutledge died of Typhoid fever before they were to be married.

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Casey Gauntt

is a retired attorney and former senior executive of a major San Diego real estate company. He lives in Solana Beach, California, with his wife, Hilary. Casey grew up in Itasca, Illinois, graduated Lake Park High School in 1968, and received B.S., JD and MBA degrees from the University of Southern California.

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Jimmy Gauntt

was born and raised in Solana Beach and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2002.   A prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California, he majored in English and Spanish. He authored six plays, five screenplays, and a multitude of poems and short stories. Beginning in 2010, the USC English Department annually bestows the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award—aka “The Jimmy”—to the top graduates in English.  Jimmy passed over to the other side in 2008 at age 24.

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